Difference Between Incarceration and Imprisonment

Incarceration vs Imprisonment

Difference between incarceration and imprisonment is something that even some people connected to the legal field may not be able to say precisely as they are very similar. Many of us in the legal field are somewhat acquainted with the terms, although few of us know their precise meaning. In fact, it is common for us to use the terms synonymously. This is not a mistake. The definition of each term reveals that they both refer to the same situation or state. What then is the difference, or is there even a difference at all? Contrary to popular opinion, there is a difference although a very marginal one. The simplest way to identify this difference is to think of the term Incarceration as entailing a narrower definition than the term Imprisonment.

What does Incarceration mean?

The dictionary defines incarceration as the state of being incarcerated or confinement in a jail or prison. Legally, law enforcement agencies are authorized to confine or put in jail or prison persons suspected and/or convicted of crimes. At the very outset, incarceration refers to the state of being confined wherein a person is restricted to a particular space and has limited movement and freedom. Aside from jails and prisons, also known as penitentiaries, incarceration can also take place within other institutions such as rehabilitation institutes, training schools, mostly for juvenile offenders, hospitals or any other medical treatment facilities. Likewise, those who are ordered to wear an electronic device on their person, for the purpose of monitoring their movements, also fall within the definition of incarceration as their movement is restricted or limited.

Difference Between Incarceration and Imprisonment

What does Imprisonment mean?

As explained above, imprisonment also refers to a state of incarceration in that it entails a person confined to a prison as a result of been convicted of a crime. However, unlike incarceration, the dictionary defines imprisonment to mean the act of restraining the personal liberty of an individual. Herein lies the difference. Imprisonment can, therefore, be lawful where confinement is authorized or ordered by law, or it can be unlawful, where confinement is illegal and against the law. Lawful Imprisonment, like incarceration, refers to the confinement of a person to prison or other institution such as a hospital or rehabilitation centre. It also serves as a penalty or sentence imposed by a court of law. An Unlawful Imprisonment, however, entails the confinement of a person against his/her will and one not authorized by law. This type of imprisonment occurs when a person, through coercion or by physical or verbal force, restricts the freedom and movement of another. Thus, the innocent person is detained against his/her will, illegally, for a particular purpose. This type of imprisonment can take place anywhere and in any place. In law, this unlawful act is a tort known as false imprisonment.

What is the difference between Incarceration and Imprisonment?

• Incarceration refers to the act of incarcerating or the state of being imprisoned.

• The act of incarcerating entails confining a person, convicted of committing a crime, to a jail, prison, or any other institution as stipulated by a court of law.

• Incarceration is, therefore, lawful.

• In contrast, imprisonment can be either lawful or unlawful.

• Imprisonment refers to the act of restraining the personal liberty of a person.

• In law, this type of restraint is typically the result of a court sentence or penalty wherein the person restrained is confined to a prison or other institution.

• Unlawful imprisonment occurs when a person is restrained against his/her will, illegally, in any place.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Prison cells by Franklina2 (CC BY 3.0)